A new 90-minute documentary about abortion, HBO’s Abortion: Stories Women Tell, demonstrates how endangered the right to abortion has become. This is not a compliment to the film, however, which plays it safe and doesn’t fundamentally inform or enlighten the audience about abortion. Granted, the title does not promise very much. But heartbreaking tales of why women choose to have an abortion, mixed with tales of women who choose to campaign and crusade against abortion, are just stories.
There’s no attempt to reconcile stories with facts, let alone evidence. Heck, there isn’t even an attempt to instruct the audience in what an abortion, a medical procedure which terminates the fetus, entails. Abortion is left to one’s imagination in Abortion, which is exactly what happens as bits and pieces of the procedure are referenced in disjointed fragments and, in one long diatribe, a fundamentalist Christian rails against abortion, incorrectly referring to the fetus as a “baby”, without any contrary argument. I think the filmmakers must think this is a “balanced” approach or that they mistake objectivity for refusing to take a position on anything including the facts of reality. Either that or they think the case for abortion needs no facts, which is not true. The effect is that the presumably pro-rights Abortion backfires and comes across as a movie which regards the anti-abortion and pro-rights positions as morally equivalent.
After some setup including the dubiously worded assertion that the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion “gives” the right to women and a preface about an anti-abortion law in Missouri which drives women across the border to an abortion clinic in Illinois, the movie by director Tracy Droz Tragos sets the basic, familiar conflict. It’s the fundamentalist religious people versus the women seeking to have or provide abortion.
A documentary about women’s abortions can’t help but be moving and interesting, as lower middle, poor and middle class women report their various reasons, which are mostly financial. “I’m doing this for me,” one individual says. Another reports the HIV virus infection as a motive to abort. Someone else explains that her fetus is discovered to have a deformity which will leave it without a skull above the eyes. Several women report abusive fathers as the reason to abort. One woman says her worst decision was to have unprotected sex and adds that her best decision is to have an abortion.
That abortion is a woman’s fundamental right to control her own body is beyond dispute, but it’s never put that way in this rambling, unfocused film, which horrifyingly presents the anti-abortionist side without commentary or correction, leaving atrocious assertions left unchecked and uncorrected. One protester’s gruesome description goes on and on without the most elementary fact check. Worse, the abortion is left unexamined as a legitimate clinical procedure. The clinic’s guardians, escorts—religionists brand them “deathscorts”—and nurses and doctors are most forthright and compelling, with a mother who’s a security guard openly and with good reason expressing her thoughts on the anti-abortionists, who tell the patients and clinicians that they’re going to burn in hell and that sort of nonsense. “Let God plan parenthood,” reads another one’s t-shirt.
But these religious radicals are depicted without the slightest qualification, giving their irrational views undue credence.
When one woman finally talked about the abortion pill, I felt a sense of relief for her sake. This is because, as observed by Dr. Erin, as she’s known here in a common tactic to protect the identity of those who offer this service to patients for fear of terrorist attack and/or murder or assassination, the anti-abortionist conservatives have all but won the war against a woman’s right to abortion by thoroughly stigmatizing the procedure, leaving fewer places to get an abortion.
“People are going to die,” the doctor rightly warns, forecasting death due to de facto abortion bans—I know that fewer and fewer doctors are trained in the procedure, which I know no thanks to Abortion—and punitive laws. Abortion: Stories Women Tell lacks the narrative and thematic clarity and cohesion to let the women who choose and practice abortion tell their full stories—of marriages, fortunes and lives saved, Casey Anthony type mother-murderers averted and inalienable rights exercised—and it fails to show the truth of the right to abort a pregnancy. Worse, while the stories are involving for their seriousness, it leaves the impression that stories as such, including those told by religious fanatics, are a better measure of truth than medicine, facts and evidence.
The individual’s right to his or her own body is sacred. The exercise of this right deserves serious scrutiny and non-fictional filmmaking. Abortion regards storytelling as an end in itself and, in doing so, it sells the true story of—including a woman’s right to—abortion short.